allegory An allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived by the author to make coherent sense on the "literal," or primary, level of signification, and at the same time to signify a second, correlated order of signification.
We can distinguish two main types: (1) Historical and political allegory, in which the characters and actions that are signified literally in their turn represent, or "allegorize," historical personages and events. So in John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel (1681), King David represents Charles II, Absalom represents his natural son the Duke of Monmouth, and the biblical story of Absalom's rebellion against his father (2 Samuel 13-18) allegorizes the rebellion of Monmouth against King Charles. (2) The allegory of ideas, in which the literal characters represent concepts and the plot allegorizes an abstract doctrine or thesis. Both types of allegory may either be sustained throughout a work, as in Absalom and Achitophel and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), or else serve merely as an episode in a nonallegorical work. A famed example of episodic allegory is the encounter of Satan with his daughter Sin, as well as with Deathwho is represented allegorically as the son born of their incestuous relationshipin John Milton's Paradise Lost, Book II (1667).
In the second type, the sustained allegory of ideas, the central device is the personification of abstract entities such as virtues, vices, states of mind, modes of life, and types of character. In explicit allegories, such reference is specified by the names given to characters and places. Thus Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress allegorizes the Christian doctrine of salvation by telling how the character named Christian, warned by Evangelist, flees the City of Destruction and makes his way laboriously to the Celestial City; enroute he encounters characters with names like Faithful, Hopeful, and the Giant Despair, and passes through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Vanity Fair. A passage from this work indicates the nature of an explicit allegorical narrative:
Now as Christian was walking solitary by himself, he espied one afar off come crossing over the field to meet him; and their hap was to meet just as they were crossing the way of each other. The Gentleman's name was Mr. Worldly-Wiseman; he dwelt in the Town of Carnal-Policy, a very great Town, and also hard by from whence Christian came.
Works which are primarily nonallegorical may introduce allegorical imagery (the personification of abstract entities who perform a brief allegorical action) in short passages. Familiar instances are the opening lines of Milton's L'Allegro and il Penseroso (1645). This device was exploited especially in the poetic diction of authors in the mid-eighteenth century. An exampleso brief that it presents an allegoric tableau rather than an actionis the passage in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751):
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatttry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Allegory is a narrative strategy which may be employed in any literary form or genre. The early sixteenth-century Everyman is an allegory in the form of a morality play. The Pilgrim's Progress is a moral and religious allegory in a prose narrative; Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-96) fuses moral, religious, historical, and political allegory in a verse romance; the third book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the voyage to Laputa and Lagado (1726), is an allegorical satire directed mainly against philosophical and scientific pedantry; and William Collins' "Ode on the Poetical Character" (1747) is a lyric poem which allegorizes a topic in literary criticismthe nature, sources, and power of the poet's creative imagination. John Keats makes a subtle use of allegory throughout his ode "To Autumn" (1820), most explicitly in the second stanza, which represents autumn personified as a female figure amid the scenes and activities of the harvest season.
Sustained allegory was a favorite form in the Middle Ages, when it produced masterpieces, especially in the verse-narrative mode of the dream vision, in which the narrator falls asleep and experiences an allegoric dream; this mode includes, in the fourteenth century, Dante's Divine Comedy, the French Roman de la Rose, Chaucer's House of Fame, and William Langland's Piers Plowman. But sustained allegory has been written in all literary periods and is the form of such major nineteenth-century dramas in verse as Goethe's Faust, Part II, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts. In the present century, the stories and novels of Franz Kafka can be considered instances of implicit allegory.
A variety of literary genres may be classified as species of allegory in that they all narrate one coherent set of circumstances which signify a second order of correlated meanings:
A fable (also called an apologue) is a short narrative, in prose or verse, that exemplifies an abstract moral thesis or principle of human behavior; usually, at its conclusion, either the narrator or one of the characters states the moral in the form of an epigram. Most common is the beast fable, in which animals talk and act like the human types they represent. In the familiar fable of the fox and the grapes, the foxafter exerting all his wiles to get the grapes hanging beyond his reach, but in vainconcludes that they are probably sour anyway: the express moral is that human beings belittle what they cannot get. (The modern term "sour grapes" derives from this fable.) The beast fable is a very ancient form that existed in Egypt, India, and Greece. The fables in Western cultures derive mainly from the stories attributed to Aesop, a Greek slave of the sixth century B.C. In the seventeenth century a Frenchman, Jean de la Fontaine, wrote a set of witty fables in verse which are the classics of this literary kind. Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale," the story of the cock and the fox, is a beast fable. The American Joe Chandler Harris wrote many Uncle Remus stories that are beast fables, told in southern African-American dialect, whose origins have been traced to folktales in the oral literature of West Africa that feature a trickster like Uncle Remus' Brer Rabbit. (A trickster is a character in a story who persistently uses his wiliness, and gift of gab, to achieve his ends by outmaneuvering or outwitting other characters.) A counterpart in many North American Indian cultures are the beast fables that feature Coyote as the central trickster. James Thurber's Fables for Our Time (1940) is a recent set of short fables; and in Animal Farm (1945) George Orwell expanded the beast fable into a sustained satire on the political and social situation in the mid-twentieth century.
A parable is a very short narrative about human beings presented so as to stress the tacit analogy, or parallel, with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience. The parable was one of Jesus' favorite devices as a teacher; examples are his parables of the good Samaritan and of the prodigal son. Here is his terse parable of the fig tree, Luke 13:6-9:
He spake also this parable: A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, "Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?" And he answering said unto him, "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it. And if it bears fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down."
Recently Mark Turner, in a greatly extended use of the term, has used "parable" to signify any "projection of one story onto another," or onto many others, whether the projection is intentional or not. He proposes that, in this extended sense, parable is not merely a literary or didactic device, but "a basic cognitive principle" that comes into play in interpreting "every level of our experience" and that "shows up everywhere, from simple actions like telling time to complex literary creations like Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu." (Mark Turner, The Literary Mind, New York, 1996.)
An exemplum is a story told as a particular instance of the general theme in a religious sermon. The device was popular in the Middle Ages, when extensive collections of exempla, some historical and some legendary, were prepared for use by preachers. In Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale," the Pardoner, preaching on the theme "Greed is the root of all evil," incorporates as exemplum the tale of the three drunken revelers who set out to find Death and find a heap of gold instead, only after all to find Death when they kill one another in the attempt to gain sole possession of the treasure. By extension the term "exemplum" is also applied to tales used in a formal, though nonreligious, exhortation. Thus Chaucer's Chanticleer, in "The Nun's Priest's Tale," borrows the preacher's technique in the ten exempla he tells in a vain effort to persuade his skeptical wife, Dame Pertelote the hen, that bad dreams forebode disaster. See G. R. Owst, Literature and the Pulpit in Medieval England (2nd ed., 1961, chapter 4).
Many proverbs (short, pithy statements of widely accepted truths about everyday life) are allegorical in that the explicit statement is meant to have, by analogy or by extended reference, a general application: "a stitch in time saves nine"; "people in glass houses should not throw stones." Refer to The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, ed. W. G. Smith and F. P. Wilson (1970).
See didactic, symbol (for the distinction between allegory and symbol), and (on the fourfold allegorical interpretation of the Bible) interpretation: typological and allegorical. On allegory in general, consult C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936), chapter 2; Edwin Honig, Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory I (1959); Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (1964); Rosemund Tuve, Allegorical Imagery (1966); Michael Murrin, The Veil of Allegory (1969); Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory (1979). [Abrams, 1999]